Burma and the world in the post-cyclone era

By Justin Liang

On May 2nd, Cyclone Nargis exacted a tragic toll upon Burma, spawning a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions.
Coming amid a controversial referendum vote on a new constitution drafted by the ruling junta, the havoc wrought by the storm—and the regime’s uninspired response to international assistance—has raised numerous questions about the challenges and opportunities of engagement with the isolationist regime.

I recently had the opportunity to ask some of these questions to Ambassador Priscilla Clapp, who served as Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy clappin Burma from 1999-2002 and recently retired after a 30-year career with the U.S. government. Ambassador Clapp has written extensively on Burma and will be speaking at an upcoming program at the East-West Center in Washington (see details of that program, as well as on another Burma program in Honolulu May 21, below).

Clapp spoke candidly about diplomacy with the ruling junta, prospects for humanitarian assistance, and the road ahead in Burma.

Diplomats around the world have been urging Burma’s regime to accept more aid, but to little avail. Tell me about the role of diplomats in the relief process. When you were Chief of Mission in Rangoon, how did you conduct negotiations with the junta? How can diplomatic communities most effectively reach out to Burma’s decision-making authority figures?

The role of diplomats in opening the door to international assistance in Burma is critical at the working level for two reasons. First, diplomats are able to communicate directly with operational levels of the Burmese government to work out the details of aid delivery and second, they can work with international agencies and NGOs in Burma to arrange the delivery to U.S. aid that is already arriving at the airport in substantial amounts.

The Embassy in Rangoon is, in effect, the U.S. government on the ground in Burma because it is the only presence we have there.

When I was Chief of Mission in Rangoon, the regime was conducting important “confidence building” talks with Aung San Suu Kyi during this period and we were closely involved in facilitating this process, among many other things. I dealt mainly with the number three general Khin Nyunt and his subordinates, who have all been jailed or fired since I left Rangoon. In fact, this leadership purge has left Burma without an effective foreign policy.

Burma’s decision-making authority is now vested almost totally in the top general, who has crowned himself Senior General Than Shwe and believes he is the modern incarnation of Burma’s erstwhile kings. Diplomatic communities have almost no positive influence on his decisions, because he deeply resents the advice of external actors.

This is amply illustrated by his refusal to answer the UN Secretary General’s attempts to communicate with him for two weeks after the cyclone, let alone his refusal to allow international disaster relief resources into the country. Fortunately, it appears that he is now beginning to listen to his Asian neighbors. ASEAN’s Coalition of Mercy has been granted access for both aid and disaster relief workers and may prove to be a key point of access for the U.S. and Western donors.

The scale of this tragedy is becoming more massive by the day, with some estimates now suggesting more than 200,000 casualties. Do you think it’s time for the international community to initiate humanitarian intervention?

Since international aid deliveries are now arriving daily, humanitarian intervention in Burma at this stage would consist mainly of improving the means of aid distribution within the country. This would require the introduction of foreign military assets, which the Burmese regime fears would constitute a threat to its control over the country. Burma’s military leadership places its concept of security and sovereignty above humanitarian concerns.

Many international figures have been urging organizations such as the United Nations and ASEAN to play a more decisive role in bargaining with the junta. Do you foresee this happening?

The UN has been only partially successful in establishing adequate aid delivery and distribution systems in Burma. The Burmese regime has been more receptive to its Asian neighbors and friends than to the UN and western governments. In recognition of this problem, ASEAN has recently initiated a “Coalition of Mercy” for Burma, reportedly at the request of the Burmese regime, to facilitate aid delivery and longer term reconstruction in the country.

ASEAN foreign ministers met in Singapore on May 19 to endorse and develop the terms of the coalition, and the Burmese regime has now agreed to receive teams of Asian doctors and relief workers.

The regime appears ill-equipped to manage the longer-term havoc wrought by the cyclone. Do you think the junta will begin to make concessions when it fully recognizes the extent of the damage? If not, how will they navigate the rebuilding process?

As long as Than Shwe remains at the head of the Burmese government, I expect it to place its own narrow interests above human life. Specifically, the government will continue to deny its limitations to deal with both the short term and longer term consequences, creating “Potemkin villages” and public relations events to pretend it is coping ably with the various problems unleashed by the storm.

If, on the other hand, the ASEAN “Coalition of Mercy” initiative succeeds in providing an access channel for international assistance for both immediate and secondary effects of the cyclone the international community will be able to mitigate the storm’s worst effects, despite the regime’s attempts to burnish its own credentials.

Amid much international criticism, Burma’s constitutional referendum was still held on May 10, and the results indicated that 92% of voters approved of the new constitution. What do you make of the referendum results and the viability of the new constitution leading up to its 2010 ratification date?

The referendum vote was far from free and fair by any standards. The results were coerced by threatening people with the loss of their government positions and other dire consequences if they voted against approval of the constitution. The polling authorities watched people mark their ballots and required them to write their names, addresses, national ID numbers on their ballots and then to sign the ballot. In many cases, people were presented with ballots that had already been marked “yes” by the polling authorities.

The constitution itself is not a prescription for democracy, because it guarantees the perpetuation of military control over the country’s governance. It will be virtually impossible to make practical adjustments to the constitution because Senior General Than Shwe has insisted that it should not be capable of amendment.

To what extent can non-state actors, NGOs, and other humanitarian organizations actually contribute to the relief effort at this point? What else can we do to help?

Non-state actors are playing an enormous role in the delivery of relief to people afflicted by the cyclone, both in Rangoon and in the Delta. A number of international NGOs have been on the ground in Burma for years and are now among those being allowed by the regime to respond, along with Burmese NGOs and civic groups. Americans have been contributing generously to these NGOs (e.g. Save the Children, World Relief, Hope International Development Foundation, CARE, the Red Cross, and Global Community Service Foundation).


Justin Liang is Projects and Outreach Manager at the East-West Center in Washington.

The East-West Center will be hosting two public forums—one in Honolulu, and another in Washington, DC—to address the issue of disaster response and the long-term impacts of the Burma tragedy.

The Honolulu program will be held May 21 from 12:00-1:30pm in the EWC’s Gallery, and will feature a team of senior research fellows from the East-West Center (click HERE for more information).

The Washington office will hold a luncheon seminar on Thursday, June 12, from 12:30-2:30pm, which will feature Priscilla Clapp, David Steinberg of Georgetown University, and Zaw Oo from Chiang Mai University, Thailand (TBD). Details will posted when available (e-mail Washington@eastwestcenter.org for more information).

For further reading on Burma from the East-West Center, see: Asia Pacific Bulletin no. 14: Burma’s Referendum in 2008, by Zaw Oo, and Policy Studies no. 45: The Karen Revolution in Burma, by Ardeth Maung Thawnhmung.